“Pump” your gray matter

“Pump” your gray matter

February 13, 2019 0 By Rick

Exercise, exercise, exercise! Get out and move! Get your body in shape. We’re constantly reminded about the physical benefits of exercising. There’re a lot of good reasons to be physically active. Some of the “biggies” include lowering your odds of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Of course, exercise can help you lose weight and lower your blood pressure. But, here’s a newsflash – exercise does much more than build your muscles and improve your cardiovascular system. Exercise makes your brain healthy, which makes you happier, smarter and more resilient. And for those of us (including me) experiencing the brain fog (Where’s this? Where’s that? Why did I come into this room?) that comes as we get older, here’s another excellent reason: exercise helps protect your memory and thinking skills. More on that later.

Move, move, move

We are conditioned to move. From the very beginning, we foraged and hunted for food, ran to catch food or avoid being food. And all that movement helped our brains grow. And that’s what separates us from other animals. Exercise makes us feel good. “The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best,” says John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.” So, if activity is good for us, what does inactivity do to us? Ratey says it’s killing our brains. That’s kind of scary.

Brains are constantly growing

Scientists used to believe that the neurons we got at birth were all we would ever get. Science also said that once we leave adolescence, our brains can’t change.  Thankfully, we know this isn’t true. “We now know that the brain is flexible, or plastic, in the parlance of neuroscientists — more Play-Doh than porcelain,” Ratey explains. We know that our brains are constantly growing and that we can rewire them. Can you guess how? Yep, through exercise.

Physical activity stresses our brains in the same way it stresses our muscles. “Neurons break down, then recover and become stronger and more resilient. Aerobic exercise can change the brain’s anatomy, physiology — and function,” says New York University neural science professor Wendy Suzuki, PhD, author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life. But how does is this work?

Potent cocktail

When we exercise, we “fire” more nerve cells than at any other time, activating the entire brain and promoting attention and arousal. Our brain says, “game on!” And out come some of our favorite neurotransmitters: norepinephrine (for attention, perception, motivation and arousal); serotonin (for mood, impulsivity, anger and aggression); and dopamine (for more attention, learning, contentment and reward). That’s a pretty potent cocktail. OK, pounding the asphalt won’t turn you into Stephen Hawking, but it will increase our potential for learning and our speed of learning.

According to Ratey, “exercise certainly boosts our potential for learning and increases our rate of learning.” Both Ratey and Suzuki are strong advocates for more physical education in our schools to help kids learn better. “Going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters helps our brains balance hormones,” says Ratey. Not only does this harmonizing of our hormones help eliminate depression, it protects us from toxic stress and eases anxiety. A study from Stockholm (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15769301) showed that the antidepressant effect of running promoted greater cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. “Keeping your brain in balance can change your life,” according to Ratey. Exercise can also keep your brain “young.”

Prevents cognitive decline

Research has shown that exercise helps prevent cognitive decline as we get older. I don’t know about you, but that’s one of my greatest fears. I’m not worried about my body giving out; I’m concerned about my brain giving out. Scientists now know that physical activity prompts the brain to create enzymes that eat up the plaque that triggers Alzheimer’s by “strangling neurons.” That fact alone is enough to make me exercise more – and better! Ratey recommends exercises that work your cardiovascular system and your brain simultaneously, such as tennis, yoga, martial arts, skating, dancing, Pilates, etc. What we should be looking for are exercises that spark more complex synaptic connections. The more complex the movements, the better off your brain will be.

Benefits our brains directly and indirectly

Exercise is good for our brains both directly and indirectly. Directly, exercise can reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of growth factors. These all-important growth factors are chemicals in the brain that not only affect the health of brain cells, but also promote the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, as well as the number and survival of new brain cells. And indirectly, exercise improves our moods, helps us sleep better and reduces stress and anxiety. That’s not bad at all.

Use it or lose it

So, in summary, your brain is like your muscles – use it or lose it! Generally speaking, anything that’s good for your heart is good for your brain. If you can, choose aerobic exercise with complex movements; exercise in the morning to increase brain activity and set the tone for the day; and if you’re an old-fashioned “gym rat/iron pumper” like me, do circuit workouts to raise your pulse and constantly redirect your attention.

How’s your general well-being and energy? It might be a good time to do a self-inventory. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Purpose: Are you spending time and energy in the areas of your life that are most important to you?
  • Mental: Do you feel focused? Do you feel challenged?
  • Emotional: Have you been feeling confident and optimistic? Have you been able to bounce back from tough situations?
  • Physical: Are you moving and exercising regularly (working out your brain)? Are you eating balanced, nutrient-dense meals? Are you sleeping enough?

I hope you answered Yes to all those questions. Whether you did or didn’t, change into your training gear and get out there and push your body and brain – even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Anything is better than nothing! “You are what you believe you are!”